The Power of Light and Dark

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You’ll spend the rest of your life in an institution. That’s what the Mayo psychiatrist told me would happen if I didn’t take his drugs. He was wrong.

I heard those words over twenty years ago from the head psychiatrist at the Mayo psychiatric hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. Every day during rounds he told me that I’d be institutionalized for life unless I took the drugs he recommended. Every day, I refused to take them. It was terrifying. What if he was right?

light therapy

In 1984, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the medical recommendation was that I take “antidepressants” and lithium indefinitely. I took the drugs just like I was supposed to for sixteen years. I thought myself lucky that I was sort of functional. Well, I was fat; I’d gotten diabetes from lithium, and I was a zombie. I couldn’t smile, I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t cry, but hey, I wasn’t locked up! But after a while, I started having trouble thinking. I have a PhD and I’m a Fellow of APA and APS, and yes, an ABPP (boarded). Well, that’s life, but then I started to worry that I’d get locked up, falsely diagnosed as a case of Alzheimer’s disease.

Moreover, I started having weird symptoms and trouble breathing. I have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, Type 2, which interacted adversely with the psychiatric drugs, affecting my ability to breathe. My regular doctors minimized my complaints and wouldn’t listen to me. Desperate, I went on the road seeking medical help, and even though I knew I risked a manic psychosis, in fear for my life, I went off the drugs cold turkey. Warning: unless you absolutely can’t help it, always go off psychiatric drugs slowly.

In my developing madness, I adopted the cockamamie plan to pretend I was psychotic to see how the mentally ill are treated on the road. Then I would write a book about my experience, a sort of investigative journalism. This idea didn’t work out so well.

I was involuntarily hospitalized in two different hospitals in Minnesota. Luckily, I had done legal research about the treatment of the mentally ill. I learned that in Minnesota they often tried to provoke patients in order to elicit extreme behavior to use as evidence legally justifying involuntary medication and/or commitment. This information proved key to my survival.

At the first hospital, the police claimed that I threatened them with a knife, a completely false allegation. Fortunately, I found out about it and convinced them to drop the claim. Otherwise, I could have been kept locked up, involuntarily medicated, and possibly die from the drugs, or I could have been found legally incompetent, even committed to a state hospital. A civil rights lawyer I talked to in Minnesota told me that many institutionalized patients were so cognitively impaired by drugs that they couldn’t cooperate to prove their sanity. I can believe that, knowing what the drugs did to my cognition and judgment.

When I refused treatment at this first hospital, I was summarily discharged without regard to whether I had funds or a place to go, which is against the law. I continued my odyssey. Next, I was locked up at Mayo. There, without checking, they decided that my having a PhD was a delusion, that I was a rare case of paranoia. They were planning to commit me to a state hospital. The staff disapproved of me because I refused medication. They didn’t believe I had legitimate problems with the medications. I was simply a bad, irresponsible patient who was trying to get out of taking her medicine.

While I was at Mayo, a couple incidents occurred that may have been designed to provoke me into out-of-bounds behavior that could be used as evidence of my need for involuntary commitment and medication. For example, when I first got there, the nurse offered to do some laundry for me, but didn’t return everything. Was she hoping I would accuse her of losing my laundry, make me look paranoid? Also, the night before I was to leave, my muscular, newly assigned male nurse looked on as I received my dinner. I looked down to see a huge toothmark bite taken from my piece of roast beef. The sight was gross. However, having been forewarned, I kept my calm and simply asked for another dinner. Have conditions in Minnesota improved? Are such tactics widespread? Certainly, many still strongly believe in the efficacy of drug treatment and long-term treatment. Stay on your drugs continues to be a mantra.

At Mayo, using my knowledge that quiet and darkness calms mania, I stayed in the dark in my room; the mania subsided. After a few days, I had the legally required sanity hearing and was released from the hospital. However, I still had the adverse effects of the psychiatric drugs. It took three years for them to clear my system. Some ill effects remain.

I am now 88 years old and I have not had another mood swing since I got off the drugs. How have I stayed well all these years? Before these incidents occurred, I had been using bright light therapy for depression, and studying bipolar disorder. Afterward, I intensified my work, avidly reading scientific articles about bipolar disorder trying to understand its cause. Why was light and dark so important to mood, at least for some people?

The work of Thomas Wehr at NIMH was key. I finally figured out that bipolar disorder is a remnant of the Ice Age that we inherited from Neanderthal. Perhaps it sounds crazy, but maybe crazy enough to be true.

Simply, the theory is that bipolar disorder evolved among the Neanderthal as an adaptation to the Ice Age climate. Depression, triggered by autumnal diminution of light, conserved energy during the long severe winters, especially for females. The speeded behaviors of hypomania and mania allowed the Neanderthal to make up for lost time during fair weather. The theory finds confirmation in the research of Danneman and Kelso and Simonti et al. Both groups independently found that our genes for depression and mood swings come from Neanderthal. Researchers Bartsiokas and Arsuaga found evidence that the Neanderthal did indeed “hibernate,” the inactive state we call depression. These data also support the theory, which I later explored in my own publications.

It is possible to prevent and alleviate both depression and mania by managing the timing and intensity of exposure to light (and dark). Amazingly, it is even possible to bring a person out of a suicidal depression in a few weeks without drugs or other extreme measures. Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail here, but I use bright light therapy in the dark months to avert depression, and 7-8 hours asleep or resting in the dark at night to avoid manic mood swings. Darkness deactivates and light activates!

I wasn’t sure these measures would work, but I didn’t think I had a choice, and they did work. These chronobiological approaches are cheap, safe and effective. These are not “alternative” treatments, but cutting-edge science. This knowledge is out there, but you have to look for it. For those of you interested in more information, many of my publications are accessible on the Internet, including my book, Beating Depression and Bipolar Disorder without Drugs: A Memoir of Survival in a Male-Dominated World.

I first gained prominence in the 1970s because of my book On the Psychology of Women: A Survey of Empirical Studies, the first scientific book on the psychology of women. I’ve been a lifelong feminist, and did seminal research that helped explode the myth that women couldn’t do mathematics and were unfit for medicine, law, engineering, and scientific research professions.

We need to seek truth in facts, and the fact is that some people, especially women, are very depressed by a lack of ambient light. Depression is a feminist issue. Women and their babies are continuing to be harmed by unnecessary, money-making psychiatric drugs. But I feel like I’m spitting in the wind.

It’s winter. If you’re depressed, get a bright light.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Dr. Sherman, thank you for your contribution here at MIA. I intend to read your work and give it consideration. I have been convinced for some time now that sex based differences need to be acknowledged in the advocacy for personalized and humane care. Your words are addressing a felt need. Thank you for your example of purpose and productivity during your golden years. I am adding your name to my list of doctors whose work seems very relevant to the best interests of women, such as: Dr. Jill L. Littrell re: inflammation of the Central Nervous System (CNS), Dr. Christine Marx re: the metabolites of progesterone , and Dr. Donald Stein of Emory University re: the synergistic effect of “Hormone Vitamin D3” and progesterone to reduce inflammation of the CNS. Giving patients authentic Differential Diagnosis and applying your insights and other evidence-based alternatives would give many patients hope.
    On a different note, I also am intrigued by the report that select “branched chain amino acids(Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine)” have been observed to resolve mania in context of “tyrosine depletion”. I wonder how that fits with the seasonal cycles of neanderthal adaptation. I’ve wondered how the extreme conditions of the mountains and valleys of european winters may have driven genetic adaptation over the ages and if what seems manic or depressive today is really our “gene-skill set” experiencing a mismatch with modern environments. Climbing mountain slopes, bearing heavy loads, hard labor etc. requires energy and strength that drives the hormonal conversions that occur in context of stress, yes? It’s interesting that when the female is greatly stressed , her cortisol levels rise and the progesterone that is needed for gestating children drops. I think that conception during the growing season would provide the fetus with a good nutritional start, and the mother could rest and live off stored food during the winter hibernation season, to give birth in spring in time to eat the sprouting greens needed for lactation. In these kinds of conditions, the specialization of male and female roles seem to have been necessary in order to make successful gestation possible.

  2. As a woman who got in the top 99.95% of my math SATs, I agree women are capable of mathematics, and any studies. Plus I agree we have a way, way, way too “paternalistic,” big Pharma deluded, thus stupid (and/or completely unethical) medical community.

    I haven’t looked into your research yet, Julia, but I have used an “Alaska Northern Lights” light in the winters for well over a decade. And I have never really had a “depression” problem, but I am affected by a lack of sunlight and Vitamin D, so I agree, light therapy works.

    I agree, “bipolar” is a “bullshit” blasphemy, used to defame intelligent women, especially women who stand against child abuse, and believe in God, and His stance against harming children.

    https://www.wired.com/2010/12/ff-dsmv/
    https://biblehub.com/luke/17-2.htm

    And, hurray for the “mental health” system – who defame women as “bipolar” – your entire “bible” was debunked as scientifically “invalid” almost a decade ago.

    http://psychrights.org/2013/130429NIMHTransformingDiagnosis.htm

    Your ADHD drugs, antidepressants, and antipsychotics can create “psychosis”, via anticholinergic toxidrome.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxidrome

    And your “antipsychotics” can also create the negative symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroleptic-induced_deficit_syndrome

    Oh, and over 80% of your clients are actually legitimately distressed child abuse survivors – who you could NOT bill to help – so you misdiagnosed them. Meaning they’re not actually “mentally ill” people, you satanic, systemic child abuse cover uppers of the so called “mental health professions.”

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

    Sorry, Steve (moderator), just trying to point out the problems with the system, since it’s the system, and all those trying to maintain it, that are the problem.

    Thank you for speaking out against the staggeringly paternalistic – to the point of being downright misogynistic – “mental health” industries, Julia. And please pardon my disgust at the paternalistic and systemically child abuse covering up industry, Julia.

  3. “I learned that in Minnesota they often tried to provoke patients in order to elicit extreme behavior to use as evidence legally justifying involuntary medication and/or commitment.”

    In my State they simply forge documents, and the ‘authorities’ then utter with those documents. They may need to be “edited” on occasion to fabricate the preferred legal narrative (pervert the course of justice), but who’s watching these ‘democratically elected representatives’ and the people they are working with? National security not in the public interest making our current government “totally obsessed with secrecy” capable of concealing what they are spending taxpayers money on from the taxpayers.

    I met one woman who had her $1000 gold chain taken from her when she went for ECTs. I got to thinking about the staff Christmas party, with people wearing all the valuables of the ‘patients’. “like this diamond ring? Yes, all you need to do is not enter it on the property sheet, slip it into your pocket, and slander the patient as paranoid”

    On the opposite end of the scale I noted when a patient was accused of stealing two gold rings from another patient, police attended for three days to investigate. The roles of the individuals defining what is and isn’t a valid allegation…….

    I think of this type of ‘tipping the scales’ as common in these facilities. It certainly seemed that the patients were well aware of how it worked (once they had been given ‘orientation’). Funny how you meet people who would have been right at home in places like Dachau in this day and age. Take the gold teeth out of your mouth if they could, and quite possibly have in the place I was unfortunate enough to find myself.

  4. Dr. Sherman, good article.
    Paula Caplan, PhD was also a brilliant & compassionate advocate for women when they are targeted & exploited by false diagnoses generated by a patriarchy relentlessly seeking control & credibility-nullification of females…by any means necessary…but usually gaslighting & drugs.
    She kindly reached out to me personally when I started to report my experience. The validation & gentleness fueled my road to well-being & re-establishing my power & dignity.

    I’m also a ‘senior’ woman-who self-rescued from a decade of the bipolar-gold-rush ‘effect’ on the culture & population in the U.S, post Allen Frances’ DSM IV leadership. You know….the guy who monetized his corruption with the best-seller “Saving Normal…”, his oh-so-sincere mea culpa. Paula quit his (DSM) task force, excoriated & exposed him…He claimed he did nothing wrong (documented financial conflict of interest) pointing to others for the IV tragedy. He was hurt the APA wouldn’t ask him back to ruin the DSM 5. They accomplished that without him….it’s called a deep bench. He’s firmly ensconced at Duke. Eeeuw- Now Duke lacks credibility. He taints by association.

    It took me 2.5 years of doctor guided withdrawal by the CMO/VP of Arizona’s Behavioral Health Mgmt contractor (2014-2016). I still had to contend with 3 more years of seizures with no effective medical assistance-a subcortical focal lesion courtesy of anti-psychotic use. Doctors wouldn’t even discuss PNES-stress induced-with me…they just wanted me to go away quietly, age faster, and die.

    Cost & liability containment Uber Alles.

    I am thriving in the 3rd chapter of my life; moving back to Florida after 16 years, living on the water, surrounded by healing nature, and opening my new business. My health has returned robustly, body and soul, with ALOT of strategic care…& I am full of joy & vitality for my spectacular 3rd act in life. My resilience has astonished me…

    If u want to compare notes or validation, please consider my essays on MIA “Full Moral Status” Parts 1 & 2-Feb 2019…and RxISK.org, “Changing a Medical Record” Parts 1-4, July 2018, Dr. David Healy’s website-

    Senior females (especially) can support each other pro-actively.
    I wish you very well indeed.

  5. First of all, congratulations on an incredible life.

    Second, I have observed this in myself too (so do many others, of course). Dim lighting makes me feel dull and low, whereas bright lighting makes me feel active and vibrant.

    There is also the opposite: SSRIs actually get me high, i.e. they elevate my mood, make me feel brighter and have a stimulating effect. Psychiatrists simply term this “antidepressant induced mania” and stamp you as “bipolar” due to it, but to me, it has been nothing except a drug induced high which goes away when the drug is removed.

    Anyway, when my mood is elevated due to SSRIs (or when a person’s mood is elevated in general), the perception of the same amount of light also becomes brighter compared to when my mood is low.

    Light is an interesting factor in mood changes.

  6. Thank you so much for this fascinating and uplifting account of your experiences and observations. I have started reading your book “Beating Depression and Bipolar Disorder without Drugs: A Memoir of Survival in a Male-Dominated World” – it is definitely worth a read!

    Years ago a psychiatrist told me that I might develop “drug-resistant schizophrenia” and get ECT if I stopped taking the neuroleptic I had been prescribed at a psychiatric hospital (where I had been involuntarily hospitalized). Until today I find it very disturbing that he mentioned ECT in order to scare me into compliance.

    He also asked “Do you always talk so much?” and claimed that it was another sign of my supposed incurable mental illness.

    I have not been using any psychiatric drugs for more than 10 years and I have never again experienced involuntary psychiatric treatment. I am so glad that I did not take this psychiatrist’s words seriously…

    • “Years ago a psychiatrist told me that I might develop “drug-resistant schizophrenia” and get ECT if I stopped taking the neuroleptic I had been prescribed at a psychiatric hospital (where I had been involuntarily hospitalized). Until today I find it very disturbing that he mentioned ECT in order to scare me into compliance.” == This is terrifying! I am glad that you got over it! You are doing a great service by exposing it. I will share with my family and friends. Thank you!

      • Many thanks for your kind words, Grace! Fortunately I was not only aware that the psychiatrist was trying to scare me, but I also knew that no hospital performs ECT in my region and that in my country doctors do not have the legal right to force a patient to undergo ECT.

        If I had not known about it, I would have been much more afraid of coming off my neuroleptic (ECT terrifies me much more than forced drugging).

          • Thank you, Grace! This psychiatrist was one of the coldest people I have ever met in my life. Shockingly, he is also a psychotherapist… I wanted to talk to him because I had naively assumed that as someone with a research doctorate he would realize that there was no need to keep me on “maintenance treatment”.

            I have discovered one fascinating thing: most psychiatrists seem to believe that a person diagnosed with “schizophrenia” by another psychiatrist must be mentally ill, no matter how s/he is behaving. I also suspect that if a person diagnosed with “schizophrenia” strikes a psychiatrist as somehow different from typical people, this reinforces the psychiatrist’s belief that the diagnostic label must be correct.

  7. Quiet and darkness are incredibly healing. And so is silence.

    I find the constant din of city noise (cars, trucks, sirens, air traffic, etc.) and background music constantly played in stores (and sometimes even in parking lots), or anyone’s blaring tv set anywhere to be much worse than distracting. It agitates the whole nervous system and makes calming down impossible, which adds to pressure and stresses people out, which causes so-called “bipolar manias”, imo.